NEW YORK >> A ball person who stood within a few feet of an altercation between the professional tennis players Donald Young and Ryan Harrison at the New York Open on Monday said he witnessed the entire incident and did not hear any racially charged comments.
Michael Bruno, 26, gave that account to investigators at the ATP after Young accused Harrison in a Twitter posting of making a racist remark during the match. Harrison denied the accusation and, in his own social media post, urged anyone with audio or video of their angry exchange during a changeover to make it public.
Bruno said that in addition to his cooperation with tennis officials he also felt an obligation to speak publicly after seeing disparaging remarks about Harrison on social media. He called the criticism unfair.
The ATP, the organization that runs the men’s professional tennis tour, is expected to announce soon that its investigation of the incident found no evidence to support Young’s claim, according to a person in tennis with direct knowledge of the investigation. The findings of the ATP’s investigation and Bruno’s account suggest that either Young fabricated the claim about a racial epithet or no one else heard it.
In an unusually explicit insight into an on-court incident, Bruno said he clearly heard and remembered everything that was said, and also spoke to all the other ball people involved — a matter of course for ball people after a match. They all concurred, he said, that they heard foul language and threats and that the incident almost became physical, but no racial slurs.
“I’m right there, and I didn’t hear it,” Bruno said. “No one heard a racial comment; no one on my side, no one on Young’s side. No racial terminology whatsoever.”
Asked several times if he could have missed it, Bruno, who is white, said it was possible but unlikely.
“I guess if he whispered it,” he said. “But I never saw anything that shows one of them was whispering. And I would still be in close proximity.”
Young declined through a representative to comment and has not elaborated or spoken publicly about the incident since his initial post on Twitter on Tuesday morning. Harrison defeated Young in their first-round match, 6-3, 7-6 (4), but then lost his next one and was eliminated from the singles competition.
It is unclear whether the ATP will penalize either player. Harrison and Young have a history of acrimony, and Harrison is known on the tour for his aggressive and abrasive manner, often incurring the ire of opponents and tournament officials.
Bruno said he generally likes Young more than Harrison because Young is more approachable on court. But he said that he witnessed “ridiculous, immature behavior” from both players.
The incident occurred during a changeover at 4-3 in the first set Monday night. The players got into an argument that quickly grew so heated that the umpire had to come down from his chair to separate the players. Young, who is black, told ATP officials that the remark was made by Harrison, who is white, during that changeover.
The post on Young’s Twitter account read, “I’m shocked and disappointed, Ryan Harrison, to hear you tell me how you really feel about me as a black tennis player in the middle of our NY match.”
During its investigation, the ATP interviewed the umpire and the ball people and reviewed video of the incident, which shows Bruno standing behind Harrison. Audio of the exchange is unclear, but Bruno, who can be seen on the video drinking from a bottle of water and smirking, said he smiled because he thought the players were joking at first.
Harrison, he said, told Young not to audibly celebrate Harrison’s mistakes on the court, something that is considered poor sportsmanship in tennis. Young told Harrison to shut up, using an expletive. Bruno also said that Young leveled an abusive, nonracial, term at Harrison and challenged him to a fight. Harrison responded by holding his hand out, mocking Young for being short.
“Donald Young said, ‘Let’s take this outside, let’s fight outside,’” Bruno said. “Ryan kept saying, ‘You’re this tall,’ and kept gesturing with his hand, ‘You’re this tall, you’re this tall.’”
At that point, the umpire came down from his chair and separated the players. Later, Young took a bathroom break and Bruno said he heard the chair umpire say something to Harrison that appeared to be a warning.
“Harrison said, ‘You should really be addressing him and give him a talking to,’” Bruno said, “and that was that.”
Bruno said that he and others were rotated off the court before the end of the match, which is routine. He said he and the other ball people went into a lounge and discussed what they heard. An ATP official later came in and asked for their accounts, which Bruno said he believed was before anyone knew there would be charges of racism leveled on social media.
The next morning, on his way to the tournament in Uniondale, New York, Bruno heard about Young’s tweet about racial abuse. Bruno said he was surprised, and when he arrived at the event, an ATP official asked him and another ball person who was present the night before to write down their accounts of what had occurred.
“Nothing more, nothing less,” Bruno said he was told. “Just write exactly what you heard.”
He said he wrote a paragraph, and that was the last he heard about it from tournament officials. But later, when he saw the fallout on social media, he felt compelled to speak out. He wrote on his Twitter account that he was present and heard nothing racist. Harrison retweeted Bruno’s post.
He said Harrison later called him and told him how he was being “brutalized” on social media.
“It was pretty nasty, some of the things I was reading,” Bruno said. “For people to just jump on the bandwagon and start, like, really damaging someone’s character without hearing any evidence or details of the conversation, it didn’t sit right with me.”
A medical imaging technologist, Bruno said he played high school tennis at Francis Lewis High School in Queens and has been a ball person for more than a decade, including assignments at the U.S. Open since 2007.
He said he knew that by going public with his account he could be jeopardizing his ability to work as a ball person at future events because they are not supposed to speak publicly. But he also said if he had heard anything racial, he would have spoken up about that, too.
“If I heard it, I would definitely vouch that it was said,” he said. “It’s not right.”